Stage and screen star Kathleen Turner is set to appear in the Philadelphia Theatre Company’s world premiere of “Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins,” through April 18 at Suzanne Roberts Theatre.
The award-winning actress, 55, stars in the one-woman show written by journalist sisters Margaret and Allison Engel based on the writings of political columnist and author Molly Ivins.
Ivins, who died in 2007 of breast cancer, gained notoriety in the early 1970s as the co-editor of political magazine The Texas Observer. She began her newspaper career at the Houston Chronicle and then what would later become the Star Tribune in Minneapolis. After five years at the New York Times, Ivins moved back to Texas to work at the Dallas Times Herald and then the Fort Worth-Star Telegram. She also wrote for Esquire, Atlantic Monthly and The Nation, and appeared on “60 Minutes.”
Ivins was a political voice to be reckoned with and her column was syndicated in nearly 400 newspapers nationwide. She nicknamed George W. Bush “Shrub” in two of her five best-selling books, “Shrub: The Short but Happy Political Life of George W. Bush” and “Bushwhacked.”
Turner, who had the opportunity to interact with Ivins on a number of occasions, said she was eager to portray the outspoken columnist.
“I knew her. I’ve been on the board of People for the American Way for many years, actually. Molly, being a champion of the First Amendment and the activist that she was, several times joined forces with us on projects or was our keynote speaker at an event. So I got to meet her over and over somewhat. I got to know her because [former Texas Gov.] Ann Richards used to live in my building. I would meet those ladies in the lobby and they would drag me up to their apartment and tell me stories. I enjoyed her very much. Most importantly, I feel very, very strongly about the things she stood for and the actions that she took. I wanted in some way to honor her. I think we’ve worked very, very hard on the script and we’ve got a finished product that’ll be really good.”
Turner said that having known Ivins actually made it more difficult for her to get into her character for the production.
“I was a little surprised,” the actress said. “The first time we sat down last August in Washington to work on the script, I worked on the script with the writers and artistic director for about three days cutting and pasting. I was just thinking about the material. When I actually performed it, I found myself so very, very moved and upset. It took me about three days to shake that off. It made it harder knowing her.”
Despite her own melancholy over the play’s namesake, Turner said the overall tone of the production is upbeat and celebratory.
“We were trying to be as faithful to Molly as I can, which is to use as much of her material that she’s written. There’s a great deal of humor and sassiness. Get up and do something, don’t just talk about it. There’s a lot of courage. She was always an incredibly entertaining writer — the stories that she tells and the jokes. The woman’s personality, she was a real entertainer. She loved making people laugh and having people have a good time.”
Ivins started her journalism career at a different time in the industry — long before there were bloggers, the Internet or citizen journalists. Turner said she thinks, and to some extent Ivins thought, that today’s form of journalism couldn’t produce someone like Ivins.
“She says at one point newspapers now offer 24 flavors but in fact they only deliver vanilla, with maybe a little weak strawberry once in a while,” Turner said. “So no, I’m not convinced she [thought] there’s an opportunity for forthrightness anymore.”
Turner added that Ivins foresaw the difficulties and drastic changes that the newspaper industry faces today.
“Molly died in 2007, so she does not address a lot of the technology that has become so much more active since. But she does say that when they started to cut all the people that were over the age of 50 to make a lean, mean newsroom, she had no problem with that. She just had a problem with an industry that wanted to commit suicide.”
Given the play’s subject matter and Turner’s own political activism supporting the Democratic Party and organizations like Planned Parenthood of America and Amnesty International, we had to ask the outspoken actress what she thinks about the current state of the party she supports.
“Oh, dear. I have mixed views,” she said. “I’m discouraged in some ways. The truth is that, unlike conservative, right-wing Republicans, Democrats never have and never will march in step. It’s not our way. It’s not our nature. You don’t just follow orders. We just can’t. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be liberals or Democrats. That tends toward a lack of organization in the sense that Republicans can send out a mandate and say this is our common goal and everyone will agree. We don’t do that. Perhaps, in a way, it makes us less effective, but at the same time I think we are truly the people’s party. Democrats are the ones that have done the most to protect people’s welfares as opposed to a lot of the corporate structure that has been overwhelmingly powerful the last eight years or more. I still think our hearts are in the right place and I still believe that good intentions will become good actions — just not as quickly as everyone wants.”
For the time being, Philadelphia is the only place to see Turner as Ivins, as the busy actress has a number of other commitments after this production ends.
“I have a film and another new play,” she said. “I’m heading out to California to shoot an independent film. I play this very-religious Catholic suburban housewife. After that, I play a really foul-mouthed recovering alcoholic nun.”
Wait ... isn’t that the same thing?
“No,” she said. “They’re both Catholics, which is weird. But that’s about it. They hardly have anything in common. So it would be a while before I would be able to take this play further than the run in Philadelphia. What we want to do is make the best play we can. After that, we’ll plan.”
Turner has taken on a number of noteworthy roles over the course of her career both on stage and screen. She has played everything from a transsexual performer on “Friends” to a murderous homemaker in John Waters’ “Serial Mom.” She’s the voice of Jessica Rabbit in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” and appeared on stage nude during a run of “The Graduate” in London. Some of her more well-known early films include “Body Heat” and “Romancing the Stars.”
“I like taking risks and I like things that are funny,” she said of her work. “I like to make people laugh. I find that humor is really a fabulous way to connect with people. I will say that doing Martha in ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ was truly a lifetime ambition that I was able to realize. I’ve been dreaming about that character for 30 years. That was the greatest thrill that I [had].”
Turner added that because she has played the roles of so many popular characters, she isn’t known for any single role.
“That’s one of the joys of being an actress. The variety of roles in film alone has been so wide. Once I’ve done one kind of role, I’ve almost never repeated it. So everyone has a different affection for a character. It’s almost as though they forget sometimes to envision the whole body of work. They’ll say, ‘Oh God, I loved “Serial Mom.”’ I’ll say, ‘Yeah, I had a great time, but when I was doing “Prizzi’s Honor” ... ’ They’ll go, ‘That’s right! I loved that movie, too.’ So it’s almost as though people never put together my whole body of work, which is fun, but at the same time it always surprised me a little.”
After all the success Turner has had in movies, television and on stage, she said one of those genres, in particular, continues to spark her interest.
“I really do love it,” she said. “After all of the work I’ve done on stage, I never stuck to stage all together because I always knew that as I got older, the actress’ best roles would be in theater and not on film. So I never went more than three years without doing theater. So over the last 10 years or more, that’s been my primary focus. Film and TV just seem too easy.”
Philadelphia Theatre Company presents “Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins,” through April 18 at Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 S. Broad St. For more information, visit www.philadelphiatheatrecompany.org or call (215) 985-0420.